Sunday, May 29, 2011

Non-Reactive Dog Training

Since the early spring my service dog Coco and I have had two run-ins with unleashed dogs. The first was with a man's German Shepherd policedog that accidentally got out of their house. Our backs were turned to the road because we were talking with a fireman and when we turned around the German Shepherd took two leaps and he was airborne. At the time I had my sons' Chihuahua at the house and so I had him on the leash and Coco, my Akita on her leash. With my brain injury, the way it works, or doesn't work is like this, I freeze up. I can't move or command or do anything. I have about twenty seconds to act and if what I do doesn't work, I'm in trouble.

Coco lowered her body and looked up with this calculating look that I had never seen her do before and when the German Shepherd was coming down on her she raised up and grabbed his throat. She threw herself in the air, not at all gracefully. Her legs were loosely all over the place but when she landed she was stradling the German Shepherd who was laying on his side. All of her muscles were tensed and shaking. The dog's owner came and got his dog's attention and Coco came right back to a heel. She was panting and nervous. I knelt down and petted her and told her we were safe and made sure she didn't have any bites. No bites. Good. When she was relaxed and breathing regularly we continued to walk to the edge of the road. The man's garage door was open and he asked me if my dog was alright. I told him she was and there were no bites. And he said his dog didn't have any bites either.

I was so happy that she did what she needed to do to protect the Chihuahua and herself and me and that she didn't bite. That made me feel more confident that if a lose dog approached us aggressively or went to attack her or me, she would be able to handle it.

Needless to say she was a little more anxious about dogs but we worked through it and she was again relaxed and non-reactive when we walked by other dogs. Some thing that is very important for us because of my brain injury.

Then about a month or so later we were walking in a park and a young man had three lose dogs. A Belgian Shepherd, a Leonburger (which was also huge) and a smaller dog. I saw them coming from a distance and started to walk slowly to the road to get to the other side of it and put some space between us. At first I couldn't tell that they were all off leash. The guy kept coming and I pleaded with him, "Please, I have an enlarged heart, get your dogs." But he didn't. My neighbor's son and daughter had come with me on our walk and Mario had the good sense to get to me quickly and he used his bike as a shield between the dogs and Coco and me. I got dizzy as soon as the dogs swarmed around us and I fell down. Coco laid her body across mine and put her neck across my neck and she just looked into my eyes. The smaller dog was trying to grab her because she had wet marks all over her body. But she didn't even look away. I was having a hard time breathing. Once I got up I walked a little bit but then I couldn't walk anymore. I was gasping for air involuntarily and dizzy and felt sick. Mario called his mom and then 911.

When the policeman came he took Coco and read her tags which gave our information. I couldn't answer questions so good. My blood pressure had spiked and I was totally out of it. When some thing like this happens I present like I've had a stroke. I can't process information and everything looks like it is moving and I have slurred speech and my body doesn't listen to me so good. It takes a couple of hours for everything to get back in sinc and even then a couple of days really before I'm feeling more normal. Which is what happened. Mario's mom and grandma got to us and arranged to get Coco so the policeman took Coco in the squad car. She was so sweet with him and as soon as she got in the back seat she turned her head and we were looking at each other. I was on the ground being put on a stretcher and she was in a car leaving me. As they started to leave her ears went down.

She got home just fine and then my nieces went and got her and brought her to the emergency room for me. We were so happy to see each other.

Again Coco showed tremendous instincts and didn't challenge the dogs, though she could have done. She instead protected me.

Since then she has been on alert whenever she sees other dogs. Especially, if they are off leash. So I've been working on this and we have been going to a park where there are lots of trails and I can see if someone has a dog on or off leash. They are always supposed to be on leash in the parks that I go to but there are often people who think these rules don't apply to them for some reason and so at least I can change my direction and stay at a safe distance. As Coco has been calming down I have been walking behind dogs about twenty-thirty feet and she has been doing really well. I will add that while the dogs were running at us at first, the Belgian Shepherd, whose trainer/owner I had met before, stopped and sat in the park and it did not go into the street. But by then I was already so overwhelmed and when we crossed the street and the Leonburger and smaller dog kept running and tried to engage with Coco I was terrified.

A few weeks ago we met a man at the park that I had noticed there before, who was working his incredibly trained dog. We eventually got to talking and we are working together to get Coco past this. I am so grateful. He had a dog he very much loved and did a lot of agility training with for eleven years. And a couple of years ago he died. He now has a dog he got from a rescue that had been terribly reactive and dog aggressive. So I have learned to keep Coco's Martingale collar up close to where her head and the top of her neck come together. And if I need to I gently take the collar in my hand and I focus on something in the distance and we just walk there. This is also what I need to do when I am flustered, because of my challenges.

He also explained that if I put Coco at a sit, this is like a neutral position. Standing she may think she may have to do something, at this point, posture to keep an unleashed dog away from us. And laying down is submission which might make her feel nervous. So now, instead of lunging or moving out of heel (which she does perfectly on a loose leash), now I have a hold of her and we just keep walking. And then I tell her to sit and she does and she looks up at me and focuses on my eyes. Which is exactly what she is supposed to do.

This man and his dog is so wonderful to help us work through this anxiety. For Coco because she is learning this from another calm trainer and his amazing dog and for me because we are both reacting calmly and getting better at this staying focused and being non-reactive thing.

Coco is an Akita. And we have trained through amazing things. She is wonderful with people. People approach her all of the time and as long as we aren't walking or in a parking lot or going up or down stairs, I allow it. She sits and lets people pet her. And she loves this. And if I say, "Will you give little kisses?" She does. And it is adorable. One day a very tall and large man came running up to her in the grocery store. He was so excited to see her but he couldn't say the words so he barked at her. She let him approach her and I told her to greet and she was wonderful.

She plays with other dogs and she comes when I call her. She pauses and wraps herself around my leg if a car's engine is running; if it is pulled to the side of a parking lot or if it is in a parking space. And she will stop unless I tell her that I see it and we're safe. She helps me all of the time. And makes me feel safe.

My biggest challenge is to stay calm myself when there are unleashed dogs in the area. I was so afraid I was having a heart attack or a stroke and I hate going to a hospital. So my fear has also grown and with that has come a hesitation and lack of confidence too.

I wish people understood that working dogs are not pets. They are companions and they have a job to do. And whether their dogs are the greatest dogs in the world, they need to bring their dogs next to them and leash them when a service dog is walking with the person they are trained to help. What a person may think is okay without knowing the condition of some one who needs a service dog may not be okay. This guy didn't think he was doing anything wrong and now I have more than $2,000 in hospital bills. If he would have had his dogs on a leash and called out to me I could have said, three dogs is too much for me to handle and we could have all kept on walking.

Some times people seem to assume that all they know is all they need to know. And when they make decisions they are based on what they know. But I have found that we are all ignorant about all kinds of things. And not taking things for granted and asking permission and showing others respect is always a good way to go.

Thankfully, this trainer is helping me to feel calm and to know how to react and we are working with Coco and we are making huge strides forward in understanding what we need to do. She is sitting beside me and just put her paw on my knee. This means I have been at the computer long enough and need to take a break, and also I need to give her some pets.

We are having storms here with lots of thunder. The thunder lasts so long. We have had so much rain. I will be glad to see some sun one of these days.

This past week Coco and I have been working in parks and she, we, have been doing great.

Coco and I went to the park today. It was already getting hot outside. When we first got there another person with a lab mix was there walking his dog. I remembered that my trainer friend told me I shouldn't avoid other dogs anymore and that I should use the training techniques and just focus and keep my pace and keep moving.

And so that's what I did. We were going in the direction of the other dog and we kept going. At one point I put Coco on a sit stay, just to see if she would be as attentive as she had been before the dog got to the park and she sat and was very calm. Then we walked some more. Holding the Martingale collar with my hand and placing it up at the top of her neck did the trick. I had the confidence, and I was calm. I just kept focus and didn't worry and kept my pace and everything went fine.

I can see how much my worry that some thing might happen that I couldn't control was really affecting everything about the way we approached dogs. Coco keeps pace with me and I don't even look to see where she is looking. I just keep focused on a tree or some thing in the distance and we walk at a normal pace that doesn't change just because I see a dog there.

This has been fantastic.

She made friends with some men who had been playing ball at the park.

Later we went to the library and I bought some plants for the garden and she just loved everybody. And looked for shade wherever we could find it. After we checked out some movies and visited with our favorite librarians we went shopping and then home. It was really hot so we were glad to be home.

I did find out that the Leonberger was again loose at the park we used to go to. I miss going to that park but it was a good decision not to take a chance and go there anymore.

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